Critics’ Picks

View of “America in View,” 2012.


“America in View”

RISD Museum
224 Benefit Street
September 21 - January 13

By mapping the history of landscape as both subject and site for photographers, “America in View” also tracks the establishment of photography as art. The show begins with the work of government surveyors who used photography to control and commemorate history. In George Barnard’s Nashville from the Capitol, 1864–65, the building’s pillars and ornate lights cut into the sky and overlook a hazy cityscape. Exploiting the form’s commercial potential in the 1880s, Henry Hamilton Bennett produced stereographs of the bucolic Wisconsin dells as souvenirs, which you can peer at in the gallery. Pictorialists first championed photography as art, here represented by Alfred Stieglitz’s Ploughing, 1904, a soft-focus pastoral photogravure, among other works he printed in Camera Work. In contrast, proponents of “straight photography” exploited the medium’s precision, which Edward Weston applied to nature, letting the serrations in rocks and the texture of dirt dominate the composition in Cliff with Seagull, Point Lobos, 1946. Rather than celebrate the natural world, Ralston Crawford’s High Tension Lines, ca. 1950, aestheticizes man’s intervention in landscape, as power lines looping across their supports yield an abstract composition.

After photography’s initial gains, artists used the medium to serve conceptual ends, as in Ed Ruscha’s foldout book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, where the images running horizontally along the tops and bottoms of the pages mimic the experience of glancing out a car window. Eleanor Antin’s photographs document one hundred boots she placed in various terrains between California and New York; she mailed the photos as postcards to critics. Nature also serves as a theatrical backdrop for the contemporary work on view. Gregory Crewdson stages a couple’s encounter with an eerily lit small-town canal, surrounded by saturated green slopes, in Untitled (Cement Canal), 2007. For Jesse Burke’s “Intertidal series” (2005–2006), the land is the setting against which to test one’s masculinity, a theme Catherine Opie renders explicit in Football Landscape #12 (Alice vs. W.B.Ray, Corpus Christi, TX), 2008, where an expanse of field and sky upstages the football players. Landscape turns sublime in Richard Misrach’s Battleground Point #20, 1997. Documenting the rare juxtaposition of water against a golden sweep of Nevada desert, mirrored in the oversize sky, Misrach points to the ephemerality of nature that photography is uniquely positioned to capture.